Some parents consider their children heroes because they endure devastating, even life-threatening health conditions with courage. Some people see their children as heroes because they overcome bullying, criticism or social cruelty.
My son Rob is a hero to me because he faced the fact that he had made a mess not only of his life but of his very character. The road to that recognition began when I threw him out of our house one sweltering summer day almost three years ago, when he was 23. At the time, both of us thought this was an ending, not a beginning. As Rob slammed the door behind him that day, he never looked back. He took the first steps of a 10-mile walk back from our house in the country to his crummy apartment in the city. I ran from window to window, struggling to catch a last glimpse of his brawny form and characteristic springy step. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the longest walk of Rob’s life.
At the time, all I thought was that I would never see my firstborn again.
Once I had believed that Rob might be the only child I would ever have. Because I’d had trouble conceiving, Rob was specially treasured and the darling of his father’s heart. When the next two came along, Rob seemed more put out than the usual older sibling. Then Dan died at 44, cancer claiming him as swiftly as a brush fire, leaving me with three little boys and precious little else. Rob was only nine. The younger boys clung to me, but Rob withdrew into an ever-darkening cloud of self-absorption. Of course, I wasn’t the mother I should have been or wanted to be. Emotionally and economically, I almost cracked under the strain. But I tried to fight back, with all the stamina and creativity I had. After a full day at the university where I worked, I seized every freelance assignment I could find and was also—crazy as it seems to me now—trying to write my first novel. All I wanted was to keep life “normal” for my boys, not understanding that life would never be normal again. The youngest, Marty, was just three and wistfully told me that I should work at the Dairy Queen, where they had four-hour shifts. But even Marty seemed to know that this harried and weary woman was doing her best.
On the other hand, Rob blamed me for everything from his father’s death to the loss of his best friend, Eric. What really happened with his friend was this: The boy’s mother, a minister, called me and said, “I really hate to tell you this, Jackie, but I don’t want Eric playing with Rob anymore. Rob is just not being . . . very nice. He’s throwing rocks at cars -and calling names.” I should have confronted Rob on the spot. Instead, I chose to believe that my son would never indulge in such destructive behavior—or if he did, it was boyish mischief. Was I too frightened to face facts? Now I see that I was. Facts demanded consequences. I had no strength for them. I lied, telling Rob that Eric’s mom wanted him to spend more time with church friends. I might have saved him then with the truth. But hadn’t Rob already suffered so much? And how many more blows could he and I bear?
As the years passed, I wished more than anything that I’d had the courage to come down hard on Rob after that phone call. Instead, I tried to compensate, giving love in return for nothing, not even acknowledgment. Rob’s hostility and apathy grew in direct proportion to his height and strength of will.
Two years after Dan died, and against all reason, I adopted a baby daughter, Francie. A couple of years after that, I remarried. Chris was a father waiting to happen (we would go on to have five more kids) and was undaunted by marrying a woman 12 years older and having to fit into a fully formed family. The younger boys and Francie turned to Chris’s gentleness like flowers after a frost. But not Rob.
By then, Rob’s ugly behavior wasn’t occasional but daily. He’d stopped doing homework altogether—even at the pricey school for the gifted I sent him to when that first novel somehow became a best seller. I explained Rob’s utter lack of will to try anything he couldn’t master instantly as boredom; after all, his IQ put him in the genius range. I explained his unkindness as an artifact of his grief. I was a virtual ticker tape of explanations for my eldest son’s malice. My explanations were lies. And I knew it.
When Rob was still in middle school, -I spent Career Day at a school in a neighborhood not far from ours. A very tall, robustly heavy lad I vaguely recognized walked up boldly and said, “I know your son.”
Smiling, I asked, “Which one?”
“Oh! Rob-bee,” the boy said, his voice oozing contempt. “He’s a dickhead.”
In that moment, my face reddened and tears spurted. I wanted to run. Instead, I turned away, bit the inside of my cheek and gave a cheery little talk. In the car, later, I put my head down on the icy steering wheel and sobbed. The kid who ambushed me also was a dickhead; I remembered him now. But he was correct about Rob. My son was the kind of boy who sneered and put people down, even the weak. He stole pencils from the school store and quarters from his brothers’ piggy banks. As a soccer referee, he delighted in throwing down the foul cards and seeing the little kids cry. He cared about nothing and respected nothing. Intellectually, I knew that these were signs of despair. But they moved me first to rage and then to helpless grief.
Deep down, I was sick with a cold fear that something was truly, truly wrong with my boy.
Then Rob set a fire at the railroad easement. (It was a safe fire, the kind he’d learned in Boy Scouts, but still a fire.) After 45 minutes of being questioned and insisting that the fire was the result of spontaneous combustion, Rob proudly told the arson investigator he’d just been messing with the man’s head. That almost landed him in juvie. But, again, I rushed in to rescue him. I couldn’t forget that the Rob who once was my sweet and stunningly beautiful baby was still in there, and so vulnerable. At night, through the wall that separated his room from mine, I could hear him crying, “Daddy, Daddy, why did you leave me?” So even when our family grief counselor told me that the greatest gift I could give Rob was to let him fail out of eighth grade, I couldn’t. If he failed, I would fail too. I would be the rotten mother Rob said I was. I kept on making excuses even when he had his finger on the delete button, about to erase my entire second novel if I didn’t allow him unlimited access to the computer. Before he could, I pulled the chair out. Rob landed hard on his rear end on the carpet. Two weeks later, I got a call from Social Services. Rob had told the therapist he was seeing by then that I had abused him. It took seven years to get that complaint expunged.
Soon there was a parade of psychologists. Each offered a new theory. Rob told them all that yes, he hated me. Yes, I had abandoned him to the care of a sitter, spending only six weeks each year at home, then going away to write for six months (it was just the reverse). Yes, he did blame me for a thousand things, including the fact that his father died just 15 minutes before the bell rang on the last day of school, and I’d made him go that day, truly believing nothing would happen in the half hour it took the kids to clean their desks and pick up their report cards. No, he didn’t have any friends, because I wouldn’t allow it. And no, he would never forgive me. The best of these psychologists was tough in her assessment of Rob and of the destructive dance of broken promises, fresh starts and meaningless contracts from which I could not seem to disengage. She did not believe Rob was suicidal or a budding psychopath. Referring to my early struggles with infertility, she called Rob the product of my need, my grief and my guilt. “You treated him like the Messiah when he was born. And you’re surprised that he plays God?”
We muddled onward through adolescence.
Whenever a crack appeared in the glacial front, when Rob’s lip quivered, I would rush in.
“What hurts?” I would ask, hoping that once, just once, he would betray another emotion besides self-pity.
Invariably, he would answer, “You. Get out of my life.”
But he wouldn’t let me get out. Whenever the world disappointed him, when the first girl he loved dropped him after a month, when we persuaded him to go out for soccer and he was cut the first day for refusing to try, Rob got in my face with a vengeance that began to terrify me.
Imagine loving someone who is actively, cruelly unloving, who towers over you, shrieking vile names and describing eloquently why your life is a fraud. Do you know how it feels to remember nuzzling the bottom of that person’s boxy little baby feet and hearing him chuckle deep in his belly, recording his first full sentence, giving him his bath, reading him Goodnight Moon? Do you know how it is to long like a lover for just one touch from the miserable, scowling, resentful hulk that your chuckling blond baby became? It is worse for a child to be on drugs, making you fear for his very life, than to have him hate you. It is worse to have a child be mortally ill and have that child adore you. But having your best beloved repudiate you is an agony so exquisite, it hurts like birth, like a dry birth from which nothing sweet comes.
Two classes shy of a degree, Rob dropped out of high school and got his own apartment. Because of a kind of savant ability to speak fluent French, he got a job as a tech specialist for a big music company that did business with French Canadians. To him, college was a joke. He called it a gathering of the recessive gene pool. Concentrate on your other kids, Rob advised me, the ones who “needed” me, my “tribe,” as he called his siblings. He said he’d never need me. Never.
I should have been hardened, after years of these kinds of slams. But the words still took my breath away.
When he was small, Rob always liked his eggs sunny-side up. Sometimes he would say, “Mom, you’re my sunny-up egg.” This self-pitying bully was the same human being as that tender child.
Yes, the world owed him an apology for his father’s death. Yes, our lives had been hard, even austere, for a long time afterward. But Rob believed that the world also owed him a living with a cherry on top. By contrast, his brothers, the ones who had the same history, did not. They had been younger, so their loss was not so shattering. But that didn’t explain everything. They showed ambition and mercy, even though Danny had to overcome learning disabilities and Marty battled chronic asthma. Kids dealt far worse cards somehow thrived. Instead, Rob seemed determined to build a future in which he was the kind of obnoxious, disdainful, deceitful, moody know-it-all that people cross the street to avoid.
Finally came that hot day in summer and the blistering fight that prompted the final break. At first, it was no worse than dozens like it. Marty, then 18, wanted to leave our family cookout to go to a friend’s graduation bash. My husband, Chris, had picked up Rob because his lousy car was once again out of commission. “Your brother just got here,” Chris told Marty gently.
“All the more reason,” Marty muttered.
Then Rob shoved Marty, who sprang back at him like a terrier.
“Mama’s baby boy,” said Rob. “I’ll break your face.”
At last, the wall of denial I’d mortared together so carefully over 10 years crumbled: Marty was wrong, but he also was right. A party with Rob was like a picnic with the town bully. We brought the potato salad. He brought the belligerence.
“Stop,” I said, coming between them. “Stop it, Rob, or leave. This is an abusive relationship. And if you leave, you can’t come back until you show me the love that I show you.”
“Well,” said Rob, “that’ll never happen. If I leave, it means I never have anything to do with this family. And I mean never.”
The younger kids drew a collective breath. They were used to Rob’s outbursts but not to this level of threat. Marty, still panting from the scuffle, left the room. Rob gave us all a tight smile and tipped the brim of an imaginary cap. The real point, Rob explained, was that he didn’t care about any of us—except the little kids who could “catch up with him” when they were older. He said, “I’m sorry if it bothers you. I just really have no feelings for you.” He shrugged. “It’s kind of a relief to stop faking it.”
Rob had one thing right. It was almost a relief. Like watching someone die after a long and painful illness.
I had to be willing to risk the possibility that Rob would follow through. His voice was as lifeless as lead. And after all the insults, whining and swearing—after all the oxygen Rob had consumed in our lives—I could finally see the truth as though the words were written in forked lightning on the glowering sky, about to open in a fierce thunderstorm: Rob didn’t really hate only me; he hated himself for what he had become. He’d become a whiner whose default response to the slightest challenge was rage and blame. I knew at that moment that unless he (and I) stopped forgiving that behavior, he could never change.
The door closed. Our sixth grader, Francie, said, “I hate Rob. He makes you cry.”
I didn’t hate Rob. I still loved him, though I doubted he could ever love me in return. But that love had become an old refrain, a lullaby played on a broken player, a tune only I could hear.
Relief, and the freedom to give all my attention to the rest of my family, was real. But it was pierced by grief.
In fact, I thought I would lose my reason.
For four months, I brushed and flossed my teeth, read to the younger kids and lay down in the gloaming to cry, sometimes waking with my hair so damp that it was as if I’d had a swim before bed. Not knowing if Rob was even still in town, or physically well, or employed, I picked up the telephone 200 times. I put it down 200 times. We didn’t know his few friends: There was no one to ask about him. I couldn’t even have the small solace of knowing he was OK. Chris would never have prevented me from calling Rob, but I knew that he also was at the breaking point. To give in would have cost me not only my boy but perhaps also my marriage and the respect of my other children, forever.
Then came the day that Marty left for college. I was cooking spaghetti sauce, making my hands busy because my heart was tearing into so many chunks and layers. Through the open kitchen window, I heard Rob’s crummy car chugging up the hill. My breath began to come in gasps: What could Rob want? Was he in real trouble? Surely Rob hadn’t come to say good-bye to Marty—the sibling he abused most, calling him faggot, sissy, idiot? Indeed, however, it was just that. In the garage, Rob kissed Marty and held him close, although Marty, mystified and wary at first, held back. Then Rob came into the house. Because I could not say, “Oh, how my eyes have hungered just for the sight of you,” and he could not say, “I was so wrong,” I said, “Would you taste this? I think it needs sugar.”
Rob said, “It’s perfect.”
He stayed six months.
Sleeping on a mattress in the basement, he paid off his aggravated parking tickets and patched up his car. With a score equaled only by a handful of others in the history of the state’s HSED test, he got his high school diploma and a Pell grant. Terrified, he set out for college in faraway Florida. And just this past winter, after studying full time for less than two years, he took his degree in computer engineering.
According to Rob, the turning point was the day that his aimless loser of a roommate skipped out, leaving Rob with unpaid bills and impossible obligations, forcing him to sleep on people’s floors. For months, he kept going. Finally, he had to assess what was left. With a dead-end job and, now, nowhere to live, he saw just how it felt to be held to account for someone else’s failures. Even his siblings had no interest in seeing him. To make his way back, Rob had to admit that, essentially, he had an addiction, a dependency on anger. Blaming other people was familiar, and so much easier than taking responsibility. He set out to change. The first hurdle was swallowing his pride and retracing the road back to our house, having discovered that home was more than a place.
In life, it’s almost impossible, or at least damnably hard, to permanently break an addiction—to drugs, food, cigarettes or booze. It’s hard to believe that Rob actually did. But so far the change in him is durable. He still has to fight the impulse to retreat into the familiar sneer. He still has a short fuse. Now, though, his anger lasts a day instead of a month. He’s alienated so many people, he does not want to risk losing more. He calls his -brothers—even helping Marty, at college in Indiana, with math long--distance. He doesn’t forget the younger kids’ birthdays or achievements. Saving bits from his grocery money, he gave his sister Mia a microscope and dozens of slides he’d made himself.
Almost each day, Rob sends me a funny link or a bit of trenchant political commentary. Now he signs his notes “Love” and pops up on my chat line to challenge me to a “lyric-off” (something at which we both excel). The last time, we vied to repeat the words to “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid, and he won. “Why shouldn’t I know it?” Rob teased me. “I’ve got eight younger siblings. You know how cool it is to tell people that?” Siblings? Cool? Sometimes I can scarcely believe what I’m hearing. For years, Rob didn’t say the things young kids say to their moms, but he says them now. For example, he says that when he’s a successful video game designer, he’ll make me rich.
In fact, I already am: People say that they consider Rob one of the most delightful young men they’ve ever met. And he is.
For more than two decades, since he learned to read at three, I never had the chance to brag about my boy—only to make dry jokes to cover my alarm and shame. It is as if a clenched muscle in my breast has finally relaxed. Perhaps it is my heart.
A note about the author: Jacquelyn Mitchard's 11th novel, Second Nature: A Love Story, will be out this fall.
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